Eleven percent of the class of 2009 applied for positions at Teach for America, a non-profit organization in which students teach for two years in underperforming, low-income school districts. Washington, D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee ’92 gave a lecture last night in a crowded Bailey Hall about the challenges of managing a public school district — and one that was “the most troubled public school district in the country” when she took office in 2007.
According to Rhee, at that point there was a 70-percent gap between the performance of black and white students, only seven percent of ninth graders graduated from college and eight percent of eighth graders were on grade level. Furthermore, kindergartners who entered relatively on par with urban counterparts in other cities were two grade levels behind the same students by the time they were in fourth grade.
Rhee, a strong advocate for programs such as Teach for America and City Year in which students engage in 10 months of community service in public school systems, was a Teach for America participant herself after Cornell. “Every single kid deserves a right to be educated in an excellent public school so they can be what they want to be, and they can live the life that they dream,” Rhee said. The two programs are unaffiliated but are both funded by AmeriCorps.
According to Rhee, the two main problems she found with the public school system were “a complete and utter lack of accountability” and politics. She went on to say that two things were required to deal with these problems — one being good leadership, and the other being high quality teaching.
In terms of leadership, Rhee spoke to Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s devotion to improving the public school system. “In his second day in office, he introduced legislation to take over mayoral control of the schools,” she said. “The things we’ve been doing over the last two-and-a-half years are things that drive most politicians crazy.”
For example, Rhee narrated that when she came into office she encountered many people who felt no obligation towards their work and she wanted to remove them from their positions. Current legislation, however, did not allow her to do so. Fenty then worked to introduce legislation to give Rhee power to fire workers she thought were incompetent. According to Rhee, he also refused to cut the budget of DCPS, asking that other departments shoulder more of the burden so that the children did not have to pay for the mistakes of adults.
Radical decisions such as this one have defined the course of Rhee’s term as chancellor, and as expected, they have received their fair share of opposition. The Cornell Organization for Labor Action is one group that disagrees with Rhee. COLA members handed out quarter cards in front of the lecture, saying that they “just wanted to make sure the other side got heard,” according to Andrew Wolf ’10.
“I think she might not have the best interest of the teachers and the actual value of education in D.C. at heart,” Stephanie Knight ’09 said.
Wolf said that COLA wanted to encourage Rhee to work more with the teachers’ unions instead of vilifying them. When COLA members were asked how they decided their position, they said that they spent 20 minutes brainstorming in their last meeting.
Rhee herself acknowledged that many of her decisions have not been popular. For example, there were 140,000 students at the height of the DCPS, but when Rhee took office there were only 50,000 students, yet all of the schools were still open. She closed 23 schools, which is 15 percent of the total in order to bring expenses down and use money more efficiently.
“The factor that I believe has the most impact on the quality of education is the teachers,” Rhee said in explaining her strategy. Rhee said that she would rather see vibrant, motivational teachers in the classroom for two years than mediocre teachers who were around for 20.
“Teach for America has become a really popular thing on campus,” said Ian Hillis, recruitment director for Teach for America at Cornell. Last year Cornell sent the third most graduates into Teach for America out of all the national universities, coming behind only two of the largest universities — the University of Michigan and the University of Texas, Austin, which speaks volumes about Cornellians’ commitment to service, according to Hillis.
Adam Spar ’09, a current City Year corps member, said that he applied for City Year because he wanted to go into Wall Street but recruitment for investment banking in 2008 did not pan out. He became interested in City Year, which he now loves.
“Rhee is so emblematic of what the aims of Teach for America are,” Hillis said. “She used the skills that she gained, the passion that she learned, and went on to make a change in her own way.”
Hills also mentioned that the percentage of applicants last year was up from five percent from the year before, and he stressed that Teach for America is appropriate for students who are interested in any subject area because it instills in students a lifelong mission to decrease the achievement gap, which can be worked at from any angle.
Laura Romeo ’09, a current City Year corps member, agreed. “City Corps is not just for people who want to go into education,” she said. “In order for the public school systems to work, you need to have great doctors, great lawyers, great people working in hospitals or in stores and restaurants — they really foster whatever your interest is.”
“The people who I graduated City Year with went in many different directions,” Romeo said. “It creates a commitment to equity I feel people take into whatever line of work they choose.”
Rhee closed her speech by saying, “Everyone in this room bears a responsibility to change the system. I hope that you will all join in with us in this fight, and as you think about what you’re going to do when you graduate, think about how you can be of public service and make sure that every kid in this country gets the education they deserve.”
Rhee was brought to Cornell by Entrereneurship@Cornell and the Iscol Family Program for Leadership Development in Public Service. Jill Iscol, one of the founders for the program, said that the program’s purpose was to bring the incredibly bright, gifted and talent people who were going into the public service sector to campus in order to illuminate for undergraduates the array of possibilities that are out there for leading a meaningful life.
“Rhee is a woman of courage and conviction, who is unafraid to be the kind of leader who, as she says in her own words, is going to forge ahead because she believes what she is doing is the right thing,” said Iscol. “I think she is a fabulous role model for people who are going to be the next leaders, to think about leadership — that aspect of leadership that requires a certain kind of courage.”